Mahakam: Into the Heart of Borneo (3 of 4)

We travelled upstream on the Mahakam that night on the repaired public ferry, and disembarked groggy and disoriented in Muara Pahu at 2 a.m. I woke up when the plank leading to dry land from the floating dock moved away from the dock, and dumped me thigh-deep in the muddy river.

We slept the rest of the night in a hotel and set off, again by private canoe, up the Pahu River the next day. The journey to Tolong longhouse gave us one of the high points of the whole trip, when we saw two groups of freshwater dolphins. These mammals are found in several major Asian rivers such as the Ganges, the Yangtze and the Irrawaddy, as well as the Amazon and the Mahakam. The dolphins we saw were smaller than the bottle-nosed dolphins of the oceans, with almost no dorsal fin at all. We cut the boat engines and watched a group of three periodically surface for air as they fished. They are quite rare, and Junaid said that we were lucky to have seen them. The sightings kept us in a good mood until we got to Tolong.

Tolong was the first real, working longhouse we had seen. It was set amidst a number of standard houses on the edge of a village. Few of the local Dayak, members of the Banuaq tribe, live in the longhouse anymore: only six families are still resident, and five were out staying several kilometres away, where they were working to clear forested land for planting.

Most of the local Banuaq lived in their own houses, as did the numerous transmigrant families, but the longhouse was still an important centre for ceremonies, and all the Banuaq still submitted to the authority of the traditional village chief who lived at the longhouse. We met him as well as the head of the longhouse, and looked around the building.

We were told that the longhouse had been in this location for 300 years, and that the ironwood pilings, on top of which the whole structure was perched, were 300-year-old originals. The interior consisted of a woven rattan floor, rattan walls and a rather leaky thatched roof. An interior wall ran down the centre of the longhouse, dividing the 60-metre-long building into a communal sleeping area on one side and a series of kitchens and private rooms on the other. Traditionally, all of the families of the village would have slept in the communal area, with each family staking out a certain amount of space for itself.

A distinctive smell of unfinished wood permeated the place, and the various things stored in the rafters added to the atmosphere of living history. Totem poles along the walls, along with lotus buds and human heads carved on the uprights below the rafters, gave the longhouse the power to resist diseases and earthquakes. There were model fortresses of good spirits to inhabit, buffalo skulls from animals sacrificed in atonement ceremonies, model canoes, long strips of rattan, and red- and white-coloured bunches of palm leaves, all with some sort of ceremonial significance. Despite the plastic buckets, radios, Coleman lanterns, T-shirts and other modern touches, I got the feeling that old traditions were alive and well at Tolong.

Healing Ceremony »

Traveler Article


Leave a Comment